The Best Video Game Soundtracks

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City artwork

The Best Video Game Soundtracks

Video game soundtracks have come a long way since the early days of primitive beeps and blips emanating from arcade cabinets. What began as simplistic sound effects eventually would evolve into chiptunes and more nuanced MIDI soundscapes, before eventually transitioning into fully-fledged orchestrated soundtracks in the 32-bit era and beyond. Nowadays, players place almost just as much importance on a game’s score as they do its visuals and gameplay. Truthfully, though, some of the best and most memorable video game soundtracks far predate the modern era, with several games from the third and fourth console generations having quite possibly the most memorable soundtracks of all. In a way, compiling a list of the best video game soundtracks is a bit like a walk down memory lane.

The best video game soundtracks do more than just provide an audio accompaniment to the adventures they score. Instead, they work in concert with the story, gameplay, and visuals to complement a game’s atmosphere and work toward total immersion of the player. And, when we turn these games off and go about our day, we find ourselves continually humming the invasive earworms they provide as the background to time spent traipsing through captivating imaginary worlds. Music has the power to help retrieve and create memories, and it’s safe to assume that the most memorable games almost always have a comparably impactful soundtrack that helps engrain them into our thoughts long after the credits roll.

15. Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter artwork

©Hyper Light Drifter gameplay

Minimalistic electronic composer Disasterpiece would make a name for themselves with the equally incredible score to the 2012 indie hit Fez, but it’s his score for the amazing Hyper Light Drifter that arguably stands as his definitive work. The atmospheric, eerie, and thought-provoking soundscapes of Hyper Light Drifter only further underscore its vast world’s brilliance and mystery. Further, the game’s soundtrack complements the on-screen action perfectly without ever becoming the focal point. When the action ramps up and the mysterious Drifter finds himself in an intense encounter, the score responds in kind, but it then just as quickly reverts to the peaceful soundscapes that immerse the player in the meditative journey through the game’s Zelda-like adventure. At times haunting, charming, and even inspirational, Hyper Light Drifter‘s score features some of the best electronic compositions in a game or otherwise.

14. Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country gameplay

©Donkey Kong Country gameplay

Donkey Kong Country‘s incredible soundtrack continues to age as gracefully as its brilliant platforming and unique visual style, cementing the game as one of the all-time greats on the SNES. Unlike most other 16-bit platformers of the era (and most platformer titles since), Donkey Kong Country strays away from the somewhat bouncy and cartoonish scores of games attempting to ape (pun intended) Koji Kondo’s incredible Super Mario Bros. compositions and instead opts for a more minimalist approach with subtle nods to a wide variety of genres. Everything from pop to jazz to even meditative easy-listening can be found within Donkey Kong Country‘s score, and the compositions themselves hit all the right notes without ever sounding too busy or crowding the game’s atmosphere. The track “Aquatic Ambience”, first appearing in the Coral Capers level, is a serenely beautiful masterpiece by legendary composer David Wise.

13. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater gameplay

©Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater gameplay

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is yet another game that is forever intrinsically linked to its iconic soundtrack. The game’s arrival in 1999 would coincide with the tail end of the pop-punk boom of the 90s, capitalizing on the success of the X-Games and the Vans Warped Tour to cross the worlds of gaming, music, and skateboarding in a way that no title had before or has since. Between inclusions of all-time punk legends alongside newer acts and noise rock or alt-metal artists with cult followings, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater‘s soundtrack isn’t just one of the best video game soundtracks, it’s one of the best compilation albums ever. The rest of the games in the Tony Hawk series would each have their own great musical accompaniment, but the first game’s soundtrack shows that licensing some killer tunes for a game is a worthwhile expense.

12. GoldenEye 007

©GoldenEye 007 box art

Like Donkey Kong Country before it, GoldenEye 007 on Nintendo 64 is another game from UK developer Rare showcasing the studio’s understanding of how important music is to the gaming experience. Veteran Rare composers Graeme Norgate and Grant Kirkhope would create most of the music for this classic FPS, borrowing heavily from the motifs present in the music from the James Bond films while injecting their own modern sensibilities (synthesizers, pulse-pounding drums, and the like). When just the pause screen to a game contains one of the most iconic and memorable compositions in gaming history, you know you’re in for an audible treat. GoldenEye‘s music perfectly sets the mood for some world-hopping super-spy adventures.

11. Mega Man 2

Mega Man 2 gameplay

©Mega Man gameplay screenshot

The soundtrack to Mega Man 2 is just as legendary as the game itself, elevating an already great sequel to become one of the most highly regarded NES games of all time. Each of the 8 Robot Masters has an incredibly iconic score accompanying each of their stages, to the point where simply humming one of the compositions will often elicit a proper identification of the Robot Master whose stage it’s from around any Mega Man fan with a discerning ear. Composer Takashi Tateishi would be unlike most of his fellow composers at Capcom in that his musical experience came from playing in a band rather than a formal education. As it turns out, that experience making music he was passionate about translates into helping create one of the most important game soundtracks ever made.

10. Mass Effect

Mass Effect key art

©Mass Effect key art

While it’s not the best game in its own series, the first Mass Effect arguably has the best soundtrack of any title in the trilogy. Main composer Jack Wall, who had provided the score to BioWare’s criminally underrated Jade Empire, sought to tap into the best science fiction from the 70s and early 80s while borrowing liberally from those films’ scores. The result is that Mass Effect‘s score, with its heavy synth palette and minimalistic approach, shifts between being reminiscent of the brilliant Vangelis score accompanying Blade Runner to the bleak soundscapes and sense of ever-present dread created by Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Although it was released decades later, the first Mass Effect soundtrack perfectly captures the atmosphere and soundscapes of the 1970s and 1980s cinema it’s emulating.

9. Super Metroid

Super Metroid key art

©Metroid key art

At its core, Super Metroid is a game all about atmosphere. Players are supposed to feel Samus’ isolation and solitude on the inhospitable Planet Zebes as they track down the last remaining Metroid in existence, preventing it from landing in the hands of the diabolical Mother Brain. In terms of games whose soundtracks not only enhance the gameplay but are an essential part of the playing experience, it’s hard to beat Super Metroid and its iconic score by Kenji Yamamoto. Yamamoto would go on to score the Metroid Prime trilogy as well, showcasing his penchant for crafting atmospheric and otherworldly compositions, but the soundtrack to Super Metroid still stands as his best work and the best score in the entire Metroid franchise.

8. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time artwork

©Zelda concept art

Many fans consider The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to not just be the best Zelda game but also the best game ever, period. It’s a sentiment that’s easy to understand given the game’s reception and overall importance in influencing the design and development of full-3D action-adventure games, and Ocarina of Time also happens to be about as close as one can get to a “perfect” self-contained gaming experience. One area (among others) where the title continues to age gracefully is with its iconic soundtrack, which not only provides background to the grand adventure players get to experience as Link but also factors heavily into the title’s gameplay courtesy of the titular ocarina. Music is a core component of the Ocarina of Time experience, and its memorable music is some of the best in a franchise known for great soundtracks.

7. DOOM (2016)

©Doom screenshot

Mick Gordon’s work on the Doom franchise exists as one of the best combinations of metal and traditional composition, blending the pacing and structure of a standard Hollywood score with the thrashing guitars and crunchy distortion of modern heavy music. It perfectly fits the on-screen action, which encourages players to never stop moving in favor of a “push-forward” combat model that rewards momentum. With a soundtrack like Doom’s backing up the action, standing still feels almost counterintuitive, making Mick Gordon’s score not only perfectly fit the game’s atmosphere but also underscore the core elements of its gameplay mechanics. The Doom games have always had great soundtracks (e.g., the original MIDI version of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”) but Doom (2016) takes things to the next level.

6. Hotline Miami

©Hotline Miami box art

Hotline Miami‘s ultra-violent gameplay stands in stark contrast to the game’s anti-violence messaging and ruminations on guilt, which makes its soundtrack all the more important for the similarities it bears to Cliff Martinez’s score for the film Drive. The developers would famously reach out to various unknown synthwave artists on Soundcloud and Bandcamp to try and find a selection of compositions for Hotline Miami bearing resemblance to the music of 1980s action films, and the resulting soundtrack is one of the most pulse-pounding and neon-soaked soundscapes of any medium. Action in Hotline Miami can end just as soon as it begins, with frequent death a core part of the experience, and the excellent, driving tunes in its soundtrack make it impossible to not keep going for just one more attempt at a perfect run.

5. Persona 5

Persona 5 key art

©Persona key art

Since Persona 3, the series has traditionally had some of the best presentations of any JRPG series, standing in stark contrast to the likes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy thanks to its modern-day Japanese setting and teenage casts being brought to life in stunning audio-visual fidelity. Persona 5 was already a quantum leap ahead of its predecessor in terms of visuals with its striking character designs, animation, and bright red color palette, but it’s the game’s soundtrack that takes it to the next level.

Persona 5‘s composer Shoji Meguro ends up creating a frantic yet calming mix of acid jazz-inspired selections that are just as reminiscent of the excellent music of Cowboy Bebop as they are of the other Persona games, and the style and pacing of these songs are tonally consistent with the game’s themes and plot. And, if any further proof of the soundtrack’s greatness is needed, the vinyl of the Persona 5 score has sold through multiple pressings to become one of the best-selling video game soundtracks in the format.

4. Final Fantasy IV

Final Fantasy IV concept artwork

Trying to narrow down a favorite Nobuo Uematsu Final Fantasy score is akin to having to pick a favorite child. But when it comes right down to it, the legendary composer’s masterwork is arguably the incredible score to Final Fantasy IV. As the first game in the series on 16-bit hardware, Uematsu would pull out all the stops to take every advantage possible from the SNES in producing his most cinematic score yet. Several of the compositions on the Final Fantasy IV soundtrack rank as being some of the composer’s best. From the game’s unmistakable overworld theme to the invigorating “Red Wings Over Baron” and the heartfelt and melancholic “Theme of Love”, almost every track in Final Fantasy IV‘s score can immediately call to mind one of the many poignant moments from the game’s series-best story.

3. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night artwork

©Castlevania key art

In addition to helping create the Metroidvania subgenre, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night features some of the best music of any action RPG. Composer Michiru Yamane would work on several other Konami games before Symphony of the Night (including Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Sega Genesis), but it’s her iconic score to the series’ definitive turning point and 32-bit classic that stands as some of her best and most recognizable work. Symphony‘s castle (and its inverted version) is absolutely massive, and needing to compose different pieces that fit the tone and atmosphere of the various biomes contained within is a massive undertaking. Ultimately, Yamane would draw on her twin loves of classical music and rock music to create Symphony‘s soundtrack, resulting in it having the ability to serve as a gateway for fans into the genres of symphonic and black metal.

2. Chrono Trigger

Chrono Trigger artwork

©Chrono Trigger artwork

The best video game soundtracks are ones that can instantly transport the player to the memory or experience of playing the game they belong to, dredging up memories of the love that we have for our favorite titles. Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu’s incredible collaborative score on the SNES classic Chrono Trigger is one such soundtrack, with its 16-bit MIDI compositions somehow carrying all the weight and gravity of a fully orchestrated masterpiece. The adventure that players take in Chrono Trigger is one that spans time itself, and each of the game’s eras has a distinct feel and tone that perfectly syncs up with the way it’s represented in-game. Chrono Trigger is one of the most important RPGs on the SNES and arguably one of the best RPGs ever made, and its soundtrack is a key part of its timeless quality.

1. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

©Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Like the Tony Hawk Pro Skater soundtrack, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City underscores the value of spending a large portion of a game’s development budget on licensing iconic tunes for use in the game. However, unlike Tony Hawk (arguably a product of its time), Vice City’s soundtrack transcends the medium of video games to instead serve as a time capsule collecting the greatest hits from the 1980s. Thanks to the game’s myriad of radio stations, popular hits from an astounding variety of artists of the 80s can be found in Vice City’s sprawling soundtrack, and it’s a crucial component of the game’s unabashed love letter to the decade. This is the decade that gave us synth-pop, hair metal, and the true rise of popular hip-hop, and all of these (and more) are represented with a “who’s who” of tracks and artists from the era.

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